Our Principles? The Libyan Insurrection and the Mohammed Cartoons

“We must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles,” President Obama said in his speech Monday night justifying American military intervention in Libya. But there is reason to doubt that the eastern Libyan forces opposed to the rule of Moammar al-Gaddafi do share our core principles -- at any rate, if by “our” principles the president means American ones.

This is not only because, as reported on PJM, the rebel forces contain al-Qaeda linked elements that have fought against America in both Afghanistan and Iraq. A look back at the origins of the eastern Libyan rebellion suggests that it has been an essentially Islamist rebellion from the start. Indeed, little known to most Americans, one of the principal sources of inspiration for the rebellion is to be found in that most Islamist of all sources of outrage: the famous “Mohammed cartoons” published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

The eastern Libyan rebellion began with a “Day of Rage” on February 17. The “Day of Rage” was called by an organization named the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO). The choice of the date was not arbitrary. According to the English edition of the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, the date was chosen to commemorate “the 17 February 2006 uprisings in the city of Benghazi where protests against the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad were transformed into mass demonstrations against Gaddafi and his regime, resulting in the death of dozens of protestors and the injury of many more.”

Reports at the time, citing official Libyan sources, spoke of eleven confirmed dead. The deaths occurred when rioters attempted to storm the Italian consulate in Benghazi. The building was set on fire and consulate personnel had to be evacuated. “We feared for our lives,” the wife of the consul general was quoted as saying in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. A consulate employee spoke of “thousands” of young men that descended upon the consulate, coming from the local mosques. February 17, 2006, was a Friday, so the rioters were presumably coming from Friday prayers. After initially attempting to disperse the crowd with tear gas, Libyan police opened fire.

The 2006 attack on the Italian consulate helps to explain the reluctance of Italian authorities to support the eastern Libyan rebels and their ambivalence about the Western-led military intervention.